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Dirty Laundry 

DWP’s deep cultural problems get a public airing, but who will fix them?

Thursday, Sep 30 2004
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A procession of Department of Water and Power employees seized the floor and railed against harassment and retaliation recently at a Board of Commissioners meeting, causing jaws to drop and commissioners to avert their eyes. Ordinarily the board conducts the DWP’s weighty business in a dispassionate manner, sparing little time for discussion about mistreatment of its workers, but this meeting featured a whiff of the DWP’s dirty laundry being aired out.

In the weeks since last month’s board meeting, employees have continued to come forward and patterns of mismanagement have emerged, along with demands that key managers be held accountable. The question now for commissioners appointed by Mayor Jim Hahn is: How long can they stand the stink?

Emboldened by an L.A. Weekly exposé on the DWP’s cover-up of discrimination, harassment and retaliation settlements, five veteran employees stood up on August 17 and pleaded with Hahn’s commissioners to discipline upper- and midlevel managers for allowing their minions to demean and torment those who have stood up against unfair work conditions and abusive treatment. The secret settlements uncovered by the Weekly cost the public almost $10 million, including attorneys’ fees. With more than 70 employee-abuse claims unresolved, many poised for filing as lawsuits, and numerous lawsuits already pending, the DWP’s labor problems could boil over, at ratepayer expense. In addition to a history of base treatment of women and minorities, longtime employees say, the DWP is plagued with nepotism, cronyism and union failure to back the rank and file, while management tolerates juvenile tactics that ostracize, humiliate and punish some, and promotes others through manipulation of the civil-service system.

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Daniel Shrader, a truck and equipment dispatcher who was passed over for promotion, was the first to speak in a packed room on the 15th floor of the DWP’s headquarters. He has a retaliation complaint on file with the city’s Employee Relations Board. Just before he spoke, he submitted a report to board President Dominick Rubalcava titled “DWP Management: Evidence of DWP Management–Orchestrated Harassment, Retaliation, and Perjury Against Its Employees.” The report contains photographs posted in June 2003 outside a district supervisor’s office of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and morbidly obese people. It includes detailed accounts of racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against whistleblowers. “We are plagued by many political interests, and they have provided an opportunity for the unscrupulous to gain and wield power within the Department of Water and Power,” Shrader said, urging the commissioners to look at a spree of employee reassignments, promotions, transfers, demotions, temporary assignments and discipline “as possible forums for intimidation and control.”

Maria Vizcarra, a senior custodian at the DWP and an employee of 22 years, said she met last December with Assistant General Manager Thomas Hokinson to address employee safety concerns. Later she was “followed around by investigators like some sort of criminal,” she said. “Nobody in this room knows that feeling,” Vizcarra sobbed. On June 17, she was told she could be fired. Last Thursday, Vizcarra was hospitalized after suffering an anxiety attack at her job. She is on temporary disability and is taking medication for depression. “Every day I fear that this is the day I will be fired,” she says.

Veteran trucker Kenneth Flippin says he was fired two weeks after testifying on behalf of an African-American who alleged he was subjected to questionable drug tests and taunted with racial epithets. According to Shrader’s report, during a civil-service hearing, Flippin had described a hostile work environment and testified that he overheard a supervisor threaten to “get that black son of a bitch out of here.” Standing before the DWP commissioners, Flippin said, “You shouldn’t be retaliated against for telling the truth.” Flippin, 63, was fired for lying down in a hammock attached to his truck, after arriving early at a job site. Shrader’s report alleges that fleet-services manager Thomas Anderbery, who reports to Hokinson, was overheard telling the supervisor against whom Flippin had once testified to go out and “take the camera and get pictures.” The report also states that another supervisor later saw a worker go into Anderbery’s office and leave remorseful after signing a statement denying that DWP employees ever sleep in their support vans while waiting for a job — even though the vans contain cots.

Sarah Roper, an electrical-station operator, has spent 22 years working for the DWP. “I did not expect this to come up today, but I’ve been involved in several [employment] investigations,” she said. “It is disheartening to see what is done, and what is not done, and to see that it continues into the millennium. You have to look at what can happen in such a toxic environment,” Roper continued. “My job is dangerous. But I’m not afraid of that power system. I’m afraid of my co-workers and my manager. I know how to supply electricity to the citizens of Los Angeles. I did not learn how to play on the school yard with the bullies,” she said to a scattering of applause.

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